With the SNP in disarray, Scottish Labour is preparing for significant gains in the forthcoming General Election. But while the short-term favours a Labour revival in Scotland, this does not mean the party can return to its decades of stability, argues Josh White.
Ever since victory in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, Labour believes it can once again rely on Scottish voters to help it win a majority in the House of Commons. This year Scottish Labour finally returned to a poll lead over the SNP – for the first time since 2014.
The crisis of Scottish politics favours Labour in the short-term, but not necessarily in the long-term. The different currents of Scottish nationalism are not going away, and Labour has no serious vision or strategy to resolve its historic problems in Scotland.
It will soon be a decade since the Scottish independence referendum, but the Westminster political class has not learned anything from the 2014 vote – or, for that matter, from general elections since, which have seen the British establishment buffeted by voter discontent.
Likewise, Scotland’s dramatic parliamentary realignment in 2015 haunts Labour, which has not yet come to terms with its defeat. No radical reassessment took place then or later, and if anything this process was put on hold during the bitter infighting of the Corbyn years.
Even Jeremy Corbyn, who wanted to break the party away from Blairism, failed to deliver a serious and compelling vision of how Scotland fits into Labour’s project. He talked up a vague promise of radical federalism, that seems to have gone nowhere. Corbyn talked about giving Scottish Labour much greater autonomy to pursue its own line on constitutional matters. This was a sensible move, but it came far too late.
Starmer’s Labour has made it clear it will pay lip-service to the principles of devolution, but it will stamp out any left opposition inside or outside of Westminster. Much like how he won the Labour leadership contest, Starmer’s strategy is to play it safe and wait for the opponent to screw up. In short, Labour has reverted to triangulation.
This requires taking loyal Labour voters for granted, while working to win the hearts and minds of disloyal Tory voters. Scots returning to Labour may risk rejoining the ranks of those already taken for granted.
Once upon a time, Labour could have taken a different path in Scotland. It is meant to be the party of the working class, and did enjoy a mass voting base for a generation and more. Its decline is the result of political failures going back decades, and it is doubtful that a loyal base can be rebuilt.
The Cardiff Model
One alternative to the Blairite re-run is the course taken by Welsh Labour. While the Scottish party has suffered massive decline, its Welsh sibling has recovered from minor losses by taking a different tack under Mark Drakeford.
Devolution has not significantly increased support for independence in Wales and the country has retained its loyal Labour heartlands despite Brexit and deindustrialisation. Unlike its Scottish sister, the Welsh Labour Party has defined itself with greater autonomy. Welsh Labour has managed to maintain shares in civic nationalism, while a cultural revival has arguably helped it shelve constitutional questions.
At the same time, Drakeford managed to walk a tightrope between the soft left and
centre of Labourism and the Corbynite left. He has even forged a cooperation agreement with Plaid Cymru, and doing so is another way to contain Welsh nationalism.
It’s too late for Scottish Labour to play this game. The party could have saved itself if it had adopted a similar stance much earlier, but it was far too rotted by Blairism to do so. Instead Labour has become the voice of liberal unionism in Scotland.
Now that victory by default is on the horizon, Scottish Labour is even less likely to reconsider its past and present for a different future. Instead, the leadership looks complacent on both sides of the border.
The Welsh story may look better, but Drakeford is not immune to the same ailments. Notice he has stood by Starmer calling for a ‘humanitarian pause’ in Israel’s relentless war on Gaza. This put him at odds with Welsh Labour backbenchers. The Senedd has voted in favour of a Plaid Cymru motion to support a ceasefire. This was a key moral test for Drakeford’s leadership, and he failed. As he leaves office, he will not leave behind a coherent alternative to the failure of Labour across Britain.
While Welsh Labour may be more autonomous, the Welsh leadership faces few checks on its power. Scottish Labour has to compete with the SNP on rhetoric and policy. This may be why Anas Sarwar has backed a ceasefire in a bid to ‘keep up’ with Humza Yousaf. Drakeford faces no such problem in Cardiff or London.
The Welsh government has one major problem in common with the Scottish administration: Drakeford’s job has been to manage an economic agenda set by Westminster. He has done so skillfully to deliver a modest social agenda.
Labour will face the exact same problem should it ever return to dominance in Scotland.
Even with Starmer in power in Westminster, the UK government is unlikely to repair the damage done by a miserable decade of austerity.
Real power still lies elsewhere, while Scottish Labour faces the political fallout of
deindustrialisation compounded by decades of failing their own base. Welsh Labour may still suffer the same fate one day, but it has bought itself more time.
Winning By Default
Unlike Wales, Scotland’s political divisions are defined by the question of independence. This will still be the case in 2024 and Labour’s lack of constitutional radicalism will hold it back in Scotland.
Anas Sarwar has made maneuvers to change the perception of the Labour brand in Scotland. He has called for a ceasefire in Israel’s war on Gaza, while Starmer refuses to do so. But he is still very much a creature of the extreme centre.
Sarwar is a member of the secretive British-American Project, which has cultivated pro-US politicians in the UK since the 1980s. This lobby project comes out of the Cold War infrastructure of anti-Soviet networking and organizing.
He is on record supporting the renewal of the Trident nuclear programme, which is itself at the heart of the so-called ‘special relationship’ with the US.
During the New Labour era, Sarwar was aligned with the Brownite wing of the party. He is reportedly bringing back some of the old boys of those years to rebuild Scottish Labour. The next election campaign will see the return of such familiar faces as Brownite stooge Douglas Alexander, who was ousted by a 20 year-old Mhairi Black in 2015.
It’s hard to see Scottish Labour taking a different line under this drab regime. Even if Sarwar were replaced with a more radical leader, Westminster would still be the problem and Labour remains committed to defending a rotten constitutional order.
No matter how big the majority in 2024, Labour will not return to the days when Scottish voters would automatically cast a red vote to stop the Tories. Those days are long gone because the underlying reasons for Scottish Labour’s wipeout remain unchanged. Whatever the result, Scottish Labour’s comeback is likely temporary, precarious and highly conditional.